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Governor's ethics panel hears citizens
Sep 23, 2005 12:00 am
September 21, 2005
Concerns about the undue influence of lobbyists over state legislators and the need to make state business more transparent dominated a discussion of ethics reform at Cumberland University on Tuesday afternoon when the governor's ethics advisory panel stopped in Lebanon to hear directly from Middle Tennesseans.
But the small room in Labry Hall was just as full of local legislators, public advocates and professional association spokespeople as it was of residents, prompting one local man to ask aloud, "Just how much interest is there (for ethics reform) in Wilson County?"
W.J. Micheal Cody, co-chairman of the Advisory Group, said at the onset the "major focus of this meeting here today is to get comments from people interested in addressing the panel."
Yet most of the comments Cody and the 12 other group members fielded were from familiar faces – Dick Williams, state chair of Common Cause Tennessee, Ben Cunningham, founder of Tennessee Tax Revolt, and Allen Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, among a few others.
"I would have liked to have seen more citizens there," State Sen. Mae Beavers said. "I know that this stop in Lebanon was kind of a last-minute thing. And I know people who would have gone had they either known about it or could have made it during the day."
Beavers said she was very happy with the energetic discussion and said one committee member she spoke with afterward said Tuesday's forum was the best the committee has had yet.
"There is a lot of interest out there (for ethics reform)," Beavers said.
Cunningham of Tennessee Tax Revolt described the need for the public to have access to legislative activity as "an issue of arrogance" on the part of state legislators.
"We ought to know how our elected representatives are voting to spend our $25 million dollars," he said. "It ought to be a no-brainer."
Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said part of the problem is the public's mistrust of government, which he said stems from the General Assembly's reluctance to open itself up to closer public scrutiny.
The most colorful comments of the afternoon came from those addressing rules for lobbyists.
Nashville resident Donzell Johnson said the committee should recommend the abolition of lobbyists, which was greeted with applause from other audience members.
Members of the committee said such a move would be a violation of the constitutional right of individuals to petition their government.
Committee member Veronica Coleman-Davis, a former U.S. Attorney fo the Western District of Tennessee said, "I don't think we can stop people from approaching legislators to talk about bills that will be beneficial to them."
The best approach to the problem would be heightened regulation of lobbying activities, she said.
Middle Tennessee State University Professor Grover Porter said at a minimum, there should be more complete and frequent reporting by lobbyists, including disclosing how much each lobbyists spends on every bill they lobby for.
"Lobbyists say 'we are informing legislators on issues that they're not familar with, and that therefore we're helping Tennessee.' That's a bunch of … well," Porter said, before cutting himself off to laughter.
And comments from legislators, too, reflected the public's view that lobbying activity needs to be reigned in.
Rep. Susan Lynn, who sits on the House Republican's ethics and lobbying task force, said she would also like to see lobbyists have to disclose which bills they are lobbying on.
Lynn detailed her own frustration with the atmosphere in the State Capitol by recounting a situation where a lobbyist laughed off her demand he display the identification tag all registered lobbyists are required to wear.
"There's just no one to enforce things like that," she told the committee.
Beavers urged the committee to consider a bill she introduced last session that would prohibit any legislator from voing on anything they have a family or finanical interest in.
The Advisory Group meets next week in Memphis before concluding their state tour and submitting recommendations to the governor.
"The hardest part of our job going forward is putting recommendations in the appropriate form by the (Sept. 30) deadline," Cody said.
"We're really going to have to hustle to put this together."
Staff Writer Jared Allen can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 15.